Why Is A Boeing 747 Being Sunk Off The Coast of Bahrain?

It is the end of the line for yet another Boeing 747, with CNN reporting that one will be sunk to form part of a dive park off Bahrain.

The Boeing 747-236B SF, last registered as TF-AAA,  was built in 1981 and has had various owners over the years. As 747’s come to the end of their working lives, this re-purposing is raising eyebrows in environmental circles. But it’s not the first time aircraft have been sunk to form dives sites and, if properly prepared, it’s a decent alternative to slowly degrading in the Mojave desert.

Why Is A Boeing 747 Being Sunk Off The Coast Of Bahrain?
The 747 destined to be sunk off Bahrain flying for Focus Air as N361FC. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

The life and times of TF-AAA

Like so many 747s, this particular aircraft has a long and storied history.

This 747 was initially destined for British Airways as G-BDXN but was not taken up by the airline. In 1982, the new plane was sold to Malaysian Airlines System. It was then registered as 9M-MHJ. Malaysian flew the aircraft for 23 years, sending it across to MASKargo in 1997.

Malaysian retired the plane in 2005 and it went briefly into storage. Later that year, the aircraft was picked up by the then Fort Lauderdale based Focus Air. The aircraft’s registration was altered to N361FC. Focus Air was a wet lease cargo operator that ceased operating three years later in 2008.

Air Atlanta Icelandic took the 747 in June 2008. It was again re-registered, this time to TF-AAA. Reykjavik based Air Atlanta Icelandic is a large ACMI lease provider. The aircraft went back to MASKargo on a lease. They flew it until May 2013 when it was finally retired and went into storage at Fujairah

After flying millions of miles and carrying countless passengers around the world, this mighty plane is now being towed to its final resting place.

Aircraft as dive sites

Bahrain tourism authorities are towing TF-AAA 30 kilometres north of the Amwaj Islands where it will form the centrepiece of an artificial reef. When complete, the reef will cover 100,000 square metres. TF-AAA will be sunk in waters only 24 metres deep.

Like many things the Gulf states do, no expense is being spared setting up this underwater park. It is designed not just to attract high spending dive tourists but also to encourage marine life – a valid reason given the degraded state of many of the Gulf’s reefs.

Why Is A Boeing 747 Being Sunk Off The Coast Of Bahrain?
Properly managed, artificial reefs can make great dive sites. Photo: National Marine Sanctuaries via Flickr

Wrecks (usually ships) can make for great diving. Around the Solomon Islands in the Coral Sea, WWII shipping wrecks attract divers from around the world. Access to these sites usually involve multi sector flights on small regional airlines like Air Niugini. Bahrain is a bit easier to get to.

Unlike ships, aircraft are meant to avoid the water and there is something very eerie about seeing a plane on a seabed. But it’s not the first time aircraft have been used a dive site. There’s a C130 Hercules 16 metres down, just off the coast of Aqaba, Jordan. It was placed there to attract diving tourists.

In 1993, a 727 was sunk off the coast of Miami, and in 2016, Turkey sunk an A300 in the Aegean Sea, just off Kuşadası. In Canada, there’s a 737 in the Stuart Channel.

But Bahrain’s currents efforts with TF-AAA are the most ambitious yet. The aircraft is over 70 metres long and has a wing span of nearly 60 metres.

Environmental concerns

Airlines around the world are constantly retiring aircraft, and not just 747s. But sinking them to the sea floor raises some significant environmental concerns.

The issue of sunk aircraft leaking fluids, oils and otherwise contaminating the marine environment is a very real one.

Why Is A Boeing 747 Being Sunk Off The Coast Of Bahrain?
It’s not just planes that get re-purposed as artificial reefs. Photo: US Army via Flickr

Bahrain had told CNN that the aircraft will have a high pressure wash to get rid off oil, grime, and post production coatings. All contaminants are being removed – wiring, adhesives, oils, fluids, plastics, rubbers, and any other materials that could prove potentially toxic. Even the nuts and bolts are getting a scrub and wash.

It hasn’t stopped some from criticising the move. JCU marine biologist Adriana Humanes was quoted in the CNN report as saying that artificial reefs are not always great ideas.

But natural reefs around the world are under threat from rising water temperatures, increased shipping, and invasive species. Well managed artificial reefs using old aircraft could simultaneously address several issues. These dives sites could boost the local economies, provide habitats for local marine life, and repurpose old aircraft that would otherwise slowly go to pieces in an airline graveyard.

It’s not a bad idea.